View From the Kitchen
Anthony Mariani

View From the Kitchen

To design my first restaurant, I hired an artist. Who shall remain nameless.

The Quilted Toque, as he envisioned it, would be a beautiful place, minimalist and colorful, $egrave; la the work of Mexican architect Luis Barragan. I loved the idea. I loved the early sketches. But then, for two months — two terrifying months after I'd leased the space — the artist disappeared.

One night, after an 18-hour day of coordinating subcontractors and staff, I came home to the artist's voice on my answering machine. From the Mexico border, with exotic music playing in the background, he boomed at me, "You never call me. You never, ever call me." I wasn't sure what he was doing. I had visions of him outside under the moonlight, lounging on his opium bed, drinking tequila and going over paint samples for my restaurant. I was afraid to call him.

But he did come through, sort of, shipping designs and furniture from Mexico. A few weeks before opening day, an 18-wheeler backed up to the restaurant's front door, delivering eight old, massive wooden Mexican doors. The artist had sent a manila folder full of Marks-A-Lot sketches and Polaroids that were supposed to explain how we'd transform the doors into decorative tables. I'd hired carpenters; more than a week into the project, they admitted in frustration that they were really metalsmiths.

But somehow we assembled the things — only days before the restaurant was set to open. I thought the place — including the tables — looked marvelous. The artist, when he deigned to view his creation, thought otherwise; the tables didn't precisely match his vision. "Monica," he exclaimed, "you've made driftwood!"

For the next two years, I didn't think much about those tables; I was busy running a restaurant. Then, on a Friday night, a manager pulled me from the kitchen. (Why is it that all restaurant crises occur on Friday nights, when overtime kicks in?) An amazing number of insects had arrayed themselves in a pattern all along our frontage windows, from the floor up to the tables. The creepy-crawlies formed a pleasant, orderly pattern; if they'd been lit up, they'd have looked like Christmas lights. I checked: None of the customers had even noticed the wall of bugs.

Sometimes, in this business, you think that if you go to sleep, a problem will solve itself. And that's what I did. Either way, Friday or Saturday, I'd be paying somebody overtime.

The next night, the insects were back — just as many, if not more. The pest control company paid a diagnostic visit and concluded that termites had been hibernating in the wood tables from Mexico. After two years of rest, the insects were ready to party. I envisioned them slowly eating The Quilted Toque, leaving behind only little piles of sawdust as mementos of my dream.

Back came the 18-wheeler (what else?). It would carry the tables to La Porte, where exterminators would tent the entire truck and gas it. As we were loading the tables, I remembered what the artist had said to me the first time he'd seen them. Once again, it seemed to me, we were in danger of making driftwood. Following the 18-wheeler in my car, I looked back at my empty restaurant, closed till the termites were under control.

At least I had the day off.

Monica Pope is executive chef and owner of Boulevard Bistrot.


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